Animal Rights and Reverence

Festival Issue 80 Jul, 2010

Animal activists will run out of business if people strictly follow the edicts laid down in Hinduism on the way animals should be treated. The sacrifice killings in and around Hindu temples notwithstanding, the original scriptures do not prescribe slaughter in the name of faith. Instead, the mute beings are either allowed to stand in for gods or paid obeisance to as their representatives. It is normal to behold animals as adorable beings, keep them home as pet and love them like family members, or just admire them as beautiful creatures. But reverence? It is a rare and unique practice in Hindu culture to pay homage to animals and give them the respect they, speaking in a general sense, don’t deserve.

Most Hindus stand venerably, join hands and bow head in prayer when they see a cobra or a snake, albeit from a safe distance. If a serpent happens to slither around their homes, they offer milk. This veneration towards snakes is evoked in Hindus by the serpents’ association to Lord Shiva. The body of Shiva, the supreme of all Hindu gods, and his abode are depicted as a sanctuary of the deadliest of all serpents—the cobra, and other snakes.

Nestled circling his neck, the cobra reminds us of the aggressive powers the lord possesses as the Destroyer. Shiva together with Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Protector), forms the all powerful trinity that is held in highest regards not just by Hindus, but also by the rest of the gods and goddesses. Snakes are also considered as Shiva’s ornaments and seen moored around his arms and waist. The king cobra or nagaraja (where nag signifies serpent and raja means a king) is held in the same respect as Lord Shiva himself. This feeling of reverence is exploited by fake sadhu, seen in the cities’ pavements carrying snakes, to extort money from devout Hindus.  

The monkeys, too, are worshipped as the simian god Hanuman. The god with a monkey’s face is loved by Hindus for his devotion towards lord Ram (seen in photos with wife Sita and brother Laxman, and always carrying a bow and arrows). The monkey god is known to be so powerful that when Laxman got injured during the epic battle of the Ramayana, he dislodged a hill on which a lifesaving herb grew, and flew back carrying it on one arm. Hanuman’s blessings are, therefore, sought by those seeking physical strength and good health. Have you ever heard Hindus screaming out ‘jai Vajrangabali’ while carrying out physically demanding task? (Vajrangabali is one of the various names given to Hanuman). His divine status, however, does not deter the god from indulging in monkey-business typical to his character. During the same battle described in the Ramayana, the monkey god is said to have vandalized Ashoka Vatika, the beautiful garden of fruits and flowers where the demon king Ravan had kept Lord Ram’s wife, Sita, hostage. His antics culminate with the palace, built mostly of gold, being reduced to ashes after the demon king unwisely orders his armies to light up Hanuman’s flighty tail, which had caused much of the destruction. In retrospect, despite all the good reasons the monkey god had to wreak the havoc; one is tempted to think that the garden and the palace deserved to be spared the devastation. But when the monkey god was at it, the monkey in him seems to have gotten better of the god!  

Elephants, on the other hand, are viewed as reincarnate forms of Lord Ganesh, the potbellied god with an elephant head. Hindus offer prayer to Ganesh before any other god. According to a mythological story, when Lord Ganesh and Kratikyen (the elder brother of Ganesh) vied for one-upmanship, their parents, Lord Shiva and Parvati, decreed that the one among them who returns first after doing three rounds of the universe would be superior, and humans and gods would offer prayer to him before any other gods. Since Kartikyein had a peacock as a pet which could double up as his transport, he immediately flew away, leaving the overweight Ganesh in distress. On seeing his master in somber state and feeling guilty for not being able to measure up to the peacock’s role as a transport, Ganesh’s favorite animal, a rat, decides to bail him out of the difficult situation.

The rat tells Ganesh that for a child his parents are more than a universe, so he should rather go and take three rounds of his parents and get their blessing to become the first among all gods.  Following the advice of his pet, he circumambulates his parents thrice and clarifies his stance. Shiva and Parvati, convinced of Ganesh’s wisdom, grant him his wish. In most Hindu temples, therefore, you are likely to see the statue of Ganesh built or installed first before other gods and goddesses.  

Cows, of all animals, are the most sacred to Hindus. They are called gaumata (where gau or gai means cow in Sanskrit and Nepali respectively, and mata means mother).  Owing to the
special veneration, Hindus not just consider milk and milk extracts as valuable, but also cherish cow’s droppings; for what others consider as wastes, Hindus believe those cow pies are pure and endowed with powers to cleanse the karmic defilements. In all sacred ceremonies or pujas, cow’s urine (gaunt in Sanskrit) and dung (gobar in Nepali) are used in some way or the other. After the end of the pujas, for example, the priest sprays the house of the host with leaves dipped in gaunt. It is also customary to sip a few drops to cleanse the inner defilements, with immediate effect visible on the convoluted face of the tainted souls!  

Many animals are also linked with deities as their transport. While the ferocious goddess Durga rides on a tiger or lion, Lord Shiva roams astride his bull called Nandi. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, worshipped particularly by students and learners, has a swan to take care of her trips, whereas Lord Vishnu flies around on Garuda (vulture in Sanskrit).

The ‘animal-god’ relationships talked about in the scriptures written millennia ago show that people in those times valued the lives of animals in equal or better terms as against the humans. Lord Ram taking help of a monkey to win over his enemies, Lord Shiva accepting an elephant headed Ganesh as his child and Lord Krishna referring to cows as gaumata each sends an important message that for the gods all beings are equal and that animals, too, ought to be treated, loved and respected as humans. If people start to pay heed to this message,
animal activists will have a day to cheer, or look for another cause to cry out for.